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Montana Native Women’s Coalition holds annual conference

Maria Campbell, a Metis author, playwright, academic and activist from Canada, speaks during the annual conference on the topic of missing and murdered indigenous women organized by the nonprofit Montana Native Women’s Coalition at the Red Lion Hotel and Convention Center on Thursday.

Maria Campbell believes that honestly examining personal and community histories is essential to healing wounds of trauma and injustice, an endeavor that she says is key to providing a better future for future generations.

And so Campbell, a Metis author, playwright, academic and activist from Canada, told parts of the story of her life Thursday morning in Billings on the second day of a three-day conference on the topic of missing and murdered indigenous women organized by the nonprofit Montana Native Women’s Coalition.

Among Campbell's numerous accomplishments is the writing of her now widely read 1973 memoir "Halfbreed."  

As she talked for close to an hour, Campbell, 79, offered pieces of wisdom she has accumulated during the course of her life, which began in northwestern Sasketchewan.

"I always tell people we need friends and we need allies, we need to be able to work together, because as indigenous and non-indigenous people our kids have to grow up together," she said. "We can’t go back to the tepees or the plains where we come from, and you can’t go back to the place you come from. So you have to find ways to work together and the only way we can do that is we have to look at our history honestly and not feel that we’re guilty or that we have to be angry, if we’re going to change the way that the future is going to be for our children."

In the traditions of Campbell's people living a good, kind and healthy life and passing that life onto the next generation are core values. But disenfranchisement by the Canadian government, along with economic woes, some of them linked to environmental issues, would eventually challenge those values by forcing people into lives of poverty. 

Traditionally, Campbell said hers was a culture of hunters and trappers. When the land was trapped out, it was down to harvest work or picking stones. White communities would not allow children from Campbell's community to attend school, though she described one instance in which three children were temporarily given schooling so a town with a student shortage could get a government grant.

Limited job opportunities for men eventually disappeared, Campbell said, leaving family providers, often men, unable to fulfill their roles. Welfare and social services were unavailable to Metis people until the 1950s, but Campbell said those services were accompanied by government policies that split up families.

Prohibitions on indigenous religious and cultural practices, along with the enforcement of other government laws Campbell said targeted her people, resulted in families being separated. She described how her own family was fractured by those forces as she and her seven siblings decorated a cake on Valentine's Day.

"We had been taught since we were children when you saw a black car you ran away and hid. This time the snow was pretty deep and we couldn't get out the back way when my brother said there was a black car coming," Campbell said. "And so in 15 minutes my brothers and sisters were scooped up, and we didn't see them in 12 years. That's right across Canada, that happened to families all over the place. In our community most of the children were raised in foster homes."

Campbell connected these instances of shame, trauma, disenfranchisement and a lack of role models to the violence women are subjected to, often by men. But men and children are also the victims of violence, she said. 

"When you grow up in violence, that's what you learn. All of you who work in trauma understand that," she said. 

Campbell believes that part of breaking that cycle of violence involves the kinds of discussion she modeled Thursday morning. She also emphasized the need for indigenous artists, historians and singers to lift people up with their work. 

"That’s for me one of the most important messages, is that the work we have to do with each other. We have to be able to talk about our own violence. We have to be able to talk about how we can change that, but more importantly we have to know our own history — not the history that somebody else writes."

She also talked about the need to show children positive role models and to give them traditions and lessons they can be proud of. But not all of that is positive, she said.

She shared an anecdote Thursday about a conversation she had with her son after talking about her abuse with her community.

"On the way home he said, 'Mom, who do I look up to?' And I realized what I was doing to him," she said. " ... Where did his father learn that? He learned it at home. Our children mirror what they do, and that’s generational trauma that we pass on to them."

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